Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Government meltdown and libel chill

It's not very often you see a government meltdown right in the middle of a scrum but if you were in the Confederation Building today, would have witnessed one.

In case you missed it, Premier Williams backed Minister John Hickey in his suit against former Premier Roger Grimes. Then Premier Williams, unable to hold back, had to go just a few steps further: he threatened to expand possible future suits to include two notable local bloggers mentioned by name.

These were Ed Hollett of Bond Papers and Sue Kelland Dyer.

It wasn't a direct statement that they would be included in this suit, just that if they weren't careful then they might be included in the future. For defamation, apparently.

There are a couple of things about this that are deservedly shocking.

First, if the Premier and Minister have particular problems with these blogs and the facts they put forward then it's time to list and itemize the problems, rebut the points or otherwise advise the authors of their errors for purposes of correction.

Otherwise just simply leave them alone. Those kinds of shots over the bow are not intended to do anything but instill libel chill and to prevent legitimate political comment.

Second, there's way too much of this lately where government members are using the financial power of government to try and silence opinions of those they do not approve.

The Speaker mentioned this morning that in two previous occasions the House has paid the legal fees of MHAs who considered themselves defamed. It's worth noting that in both these previous cases, the object of the legal action were large corporations who could well afford dealing with these matters (CBC and VOCM).

There is no doubt that any MHA with the full financial backing of the House behind it could easily overwhelm the financial resources of a normal individual. Therefore that must be an action and power that is used very sparingly, in extreme situations only, in order to preserve vigorous debate in a healthy political society.

There is something that really stinks about members of government trying to litigate their critics out of existence. I'd like to say that this is unique but there are too many cases in too many jurisdictions where a part of supposedly "free" political environments saw government agencies launch legal suits of all kinds against their critics in order to silence them.

It's low and that seems to be what is happening here.

Finally, in spite of this government winning 3 of 4 by elections by huge margins and in spite of the fact that this government enjoys overwhelming support in the populace, it remains the touchiest, most defensive and aggressively hostile to responsible opposing points of view of any government since Smallwoood's.

You would think that they would be pretty happy with 70% or 80% plus support but instead this government is obsessed with winning over or otherwise stamping out of existence anybody not in their camp.

It is a peculiar form of pathology which has no place in public life. And it's a high form of hypocrisy to conveniently forget the kind of motive-imputing, character-assassinating and personally disparaging remarks that this Premier has become famous for.

Two wrongs don't make a right but it's worthwhile keeping all this in perspective.

And get over it, Mr. Premier. When you take a shot you have to expect one in return; public life is not for the faint of heart or the wussy in spirit.

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